April 30, 2010

The County

I have never been on the island in April, and I am just amazed. A month ago there wasn't a speck of green, and now the forest has erupted. The azalea bushes all over the island have turned out amazing displays of hot pink, peach, and red on plants so large that the look like clouds. Being in London got me thinking about the reasons I love Virginia, or rather, one reason: that it has a real sense of history. Not to say that California doesn't have history; it surely does. But more so that history is more evident here. In California the land is so valuable that things don't linger the same way they do here; old buildings are mowed down and new stucco atrocities spring up. There isn't much sentiment. Or at least it always seemed that way to me.

There are a great number of old, old houses in Mathews County. Not old compared to the houses you walk by on every street in London, but old by American standards. Many of them are pretty run down, or even uninhabitable at this point. Salt and water and forest can be hard on timber homes, and there's an abundance of all three in Mathews. The County, as from-heres often refer to it, was established in 1791 after it split off from the larger Gloucester County (there's still a healthy amount of mud-slinging between the two neighboring counties, and things apparently come to a head every time the high schools' teams face off). What's interesting about Mathews County, among other things, is that while it has a total area of 252 square miles (which isn't much), 166 square miles of that is water. That's just about 67%. My grandfather likes to say that there isn't a place in Mathews over a mile from the water, and he's most likely correct.

After the collapse of the steamship industry and the decline of the fishing industry, Mathews went into an economic decline that seems to have persisted through to this day. This economic decline is probably the reason that Mathews remains largely untouched by the quick-changing technological and social aspects of American society, for good or ill. On the lovely side of this, Mathews boasts no Walmart or Starbucks--no chains at all, really, besides one Hardees on Main Street. The shops in the courthouse are all locally owned and run, and the restaurants that manage to stay open (Southwind Cafe, White Dog Inn, Lynne's Diner, etc) are definitely more interesting than a Chilis, Chevy's, or TGI Fridays. People buy shrimp, scallops, jumbo lump crabmeat, and (in the right season) watermelons, tomatoes, and cucumbers off the back of pick-up trucks parked up and down Main Street. The manager of the local grocery store greets you by name and your postmistress knows your entire family. There are no traffic lights in the entire county.

Of course, a lack of modernity comes with its negative aspects. Mathews can be a little prickly towards outsiders, particularly the Obama-sticker-sporting-Prius-driving-come-heres that own riverfront and bayfront property all over the county. This prickliness, which is born of a fierce local pride, has helped preserve Mathews County's identity while Gloucester County got its Walmart, Starbucks, and traffic lights. It has also preserved some of the regrettable prejudices that Obama-sticker-sporting-Prius-driving-come-heres associate with the South. It was interesting to be in California when Virginia's governor declared Confederate History month, much to the shock and indignation of a lot of people. I could only shrug. You see a lot of Confederate flags around here, Confederate History month or not. You see a lot of bumper stickers (often on pick-up trucks, for whatever reason). I barely notice anymore. The rebel flag is as common here as those offensive lawn jockeys, and almost as common as the American flag. Racial prejudice is still very much alive, especially among the older generations, so it's of no great surprise that the racial slur that comes with flying a Confederate flag isn't much of a deterrent, even if the implication is meant to be more southern pride than anything. Gwynn's Island, despite the large come-here population, is no different. It's probably worse. You can't help but be a little shocked and dismayed to discover that the postmistress who keeps you in Netflix and dumdums is an old-school racist, who ever-so ironically sneers, in reference to Dorothy Height, that she guesses "now we'll have to lower the flag for every colored person that dies." The island has had a purely white population since the early 1900s for a reason. Of course, that is not to say that everyone who lives in Mathews, or on Gwynn's Island, thinks this way--it's most likely a vocal minority. But it's there, and it's common, and people don't seem very surprised by it.

It's difficult to reconcile the unpleasant undercurrents of this place with the sheer beauty of it. They occasionally break across the surface, reminding me that I am a come-here and that some of my political and religious beliefs would undoubtedly be met with fury by the people whose paths I cross on a daily basis. I sometimes appreciate it, the overtness of it. It isn't hidden and no one pretends it isn't there. Just because you rarely see a rebel flag in suburban California does not indicate a total absence of racism, or hate. I am trying to take this place as it is and understand it, even when I absolutely despair at what I see and hear. It reminds me that this isn't paradise--that this is a place like any other, despite my love for it.

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